A touching though sometimes lagging story about enduring friendship, Shepard and Dark highlights aspects of the half-century long relationship between playwright/ actor Sam Shepard and his friend, an everyday grocery clerk named Johnny Dark. The impetus for the documentary is the archiving (and eventual publishing) of hundreds of letters that passed back and forth between them over the decades. As much about the individual men as their correspondence, one can’t help but feel this lingering film would have been much more compelling as a documentary short as opposed to feature length.
Despite Shepard being the clear celebrity of the two, the film is bit more Dark heavy. A predominant theme is the inherent differences between the kindred spirits, where Shepard never seems to stay in one place for very long, Dark is very much a homebody. At first Dark comes off as a bit of a boring old man, but as the film goes on we begin to see his quirks and idiosyncrasies. An unabashed pothead with some Dude-esque qualities, it becomes apparent why simple living and part-time low wage jobs suit him. There are also a few casual references to his penchant for theft which unfortunately are never elaborated on, leaving us to wonder if this is an ongoing habit and if there are legal issues at play.
Shepard and Dark walks the fine line between sentimental and nostalgic with the subjects managing to keep it grounded on the sentimental side. Shepard is a sensitive, introspective man but not one to romanticize past events. The strongest section of the film documents the period that they actually lived together, forming an odd familial unit with a mother and daughter (Dark married the mother and Shepard married the daughter whom he had a son with). This period provides the film with some exceptional home videos that go from mirthful to somber following a brain aneurysm suffered by Dark’s wife and Shepard’s eventual abandonment of the family, including his own son. More time could have been spent on this complex era and its effects on the relationship, but perhaps the message is to give equal weight to all parts of life, no matter how significant or insignificant the events may seem to outside observers.
While excerpts from the letters are read out loud occasionally, the film would have benefited from sharing more of their content rather than showing the writers thumbing through the pages while making idle chit chat, perhaps they are saving some gems for the published version. Ultimately the entire project, the book as well as the accompanying documentary, feels a little like Shepard’s attempt to help his financially struggling friend who basically raised his son. A very unromantic stance to take, but I don’t think Shepard would have it any other way.